The news over the past month has had a number of “disaster” stories, and in early January, there was the chemical spill in West Virginia, which left over 300,000 people without drinking water. In the aftermath of this, there has been a lot of screaming by the affected population, along with a round of finger pointing and denial of responsibility by various elected officials. The sad part? Things like these are predictable. The actual incidents and timing may not be, but that something like this will happen is.
It seems to be a part of human nature to minimize risks or deny that bad things “can happen here.” It’s what causes people to build houses on the ocean shore, flood plains, near a volcano, or on a fault line. That hurricanes, tidal waves, floods, volcanic eruptions, or earthquakes are not only likely to happen, but will happen at some point is ignored or minimized. When they do happen, there’s the equally predictable complaining about the damage, the disruption and death, and … the need to stay right there. In short, “You knew it was going to happen, and now you’re complaining that it did.”
Those are examples of “natural disasters,” but there’s another category of “not going to happen” denials: The man-made disasters. Those caused by political ideology or short-term economic decisions. That’s what the problem in the opening paragraph was the result of. No, the specifics in terms of what happened weren’t predictable in terms of time or location, but that something like this would happen? Absolutely.
The basics are this:
The emergency began Thursday following complaints to West Virginia American Water about a licorice-type odor in the tap water. The source: the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which had leaked out of a 40,000-gallon tank at a Freedom Industries facility along the Elk River.
According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries is exempt from DEP inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals, and doesn’t produce them.
Yes, it wasn’t inspected or permitted. Why?
The answer isn’t hard to find. As Maya Nye, president of People Concerned About Chemical Safety, a citizen’s group formed after a 2008 explosion and fire killed workers at West Virginia’s Bayer CropScience plant in the state, explained to the New York Times: “We are so desperate for jobs in West Virginia we don’t want to do anything that pushes industry out.”
Which is why West Virginia tap danced around to avoid “federal intervention,” and has often complained about “burdensome regulations,” particularly for the coal industry. They were depending the industry to “behave responsibly,” or as one resident said:
McKinney said he is upset with the chemical company responsible for the spill, which was one of the most dramatic environmental disasters in recent memory in the area and the cause of national headlines.
He says Freedom Industries should have had better safety measures in place, including multiple walls of containment, to stop the accident.
Which given the history of industry – and in particular in West Virginia – was more a wistful hope than a reality.
In Mingo County, W.Va., coal-mining residents settled a major lawsuit in 2011 with the former Massey Energy coal company after the injection of 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry — waste fluid produced by washing coal with water and chemicals before sending it to market — into underground mines contaminated their aquifers, wells and other drinking-water sources. “We had some faith that if your water was contaminated, that your government would step in and do something,” former miner Brenda McCoy told visiting filmmakers in 2011. “But they didn’t.”
In Prenter, W.Va., a corridor of brain tumors, kidney and liver failure and respiratory problems finally came to light in a 2009 New York Times expose on coal companies. The series reported that the coal companies had pumped “into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.” As the Times noted, “state regulators never fined or punished those companies for breaking those pollution laws.”
This is the result of a conservative mantra that “regulation is bad” and that it “kills jobs.” Particularly in economically depressed areas, that stokes the fear that what few jobs there are will leave, unless the regulations are removed or unenforced. It’s that fear that enables companies to get politicians – and in particular, conservatives – to push through laws weakening those protections, or cutting the budget of enforcement agencies.
As I’ve said here in the past, there is a reason why regulations get created. Failure to have them, or enforce them is a guarantee that at some point something bad will happen. It’s a predictable outcome. It’s happened in the past in West Virginia and elsewhere, and it has happened again. It will keep happening, as long as voters continue to believe that regulations aren’t necessary, and that companies will behave responsibly. The other thing that’s predictable? They’ll complain loudly when it turns out they were wrong. Sometimes it seems that people don’t learn from experience, even when they’ve had ample warning that an event was … predictable.